Magazine article Social Studies Review

Towards a Rebirth for Civics

Magazine article Social Studies Review

Towards a Rebirth for Civics

Article excerpt

California's highly regarded framework of instruction for history-social science describes knowledge and cultural understanding, democratic understanding, and civic values and skills attainment and social participation as the three broad goals of history-social science in the curriculum. Even so, large numbers of our students are not well prepared for effective citizenship. In a recent survey of graduating seniors, conducted by the California Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, one half of the sample could not correctly identify the function of the Supreme Court, and 33% could not correctly identify even one of California's two senators from a list of options. Less than half agreed, "Being actively involved in state and local issues is my responsibility." Especially disturbing was that these 12th graders had recently completed a course in U.S. government during their senior year.

The emphasis the framework gives to the goals of promoting student understanding and preparation for participation in our democracy is very clear. However, if you were to begin to examine the framework with its course descriptions, it would be easy to miss the point that preparation of young people for citizenship is a key reason history-social science is part of the curriculum. There are, of course, standards at nearly every grade level that deal with civic outcomes. However, there is no clearly developed civics strand that would assure that young people are prepared to participate effectively in our democracy or make informed decisions regarding civic life. Neither does California have a commitment to provide staff development for teachers to help them achieve this result.

In 2001, the Center for Civic Education was funded by the state to develop the California Civic Education Scope & Sequence. Developed with broad input from practitioners, the Scope & Sequence is keyed to the History-Social Science Framework and Standards. This publication, which has been distributed since 2003, is an outstanding guide for teachers, showing how civic education can be introduced at each grade level. It includes sample classroom applications and resources, which are both practical and specific. This scope and sequence is a great resource and could serve as the basis for a revival of civic education in our schools. However, a scope and sequence can change practice only if it is used as a guide for widespread professional development. Without that vital link, connecting the book and the teacher, this terrific guide will have little impact on how we teach.

At about the same time the Scope & Sequence was being developed in California, Cynthia Gibson, a senior program officer at The Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland began a study of the growing disengagement of American citizens from civic life. In seeking solutions to the problem, she and her colleagues concluded that, "one of the most promising approaches to increase young people's informed engagement is school-based civic education." (Civic Mission of Schools, 2003)

In an effort to determine what form school based programs should take, Carnegie and CIRCLE convened the top scholars and practitioners in the field to identify effective practices for school programs. According to their report, The Civic Mission of Schools, this group, "representing a diversity of political views, a variety of disciplines and various approaches...disagree about some aspects of how civic education should be conducted, but nevertheless share a common vision of a richer, more comprehensive approach to civic education in the United States."

Among a wide range of suggestions, the report recommended six research-based practices as elements of an effective civic education program. (The full report can be found at

The six recommendations focus on classroom practice, extra-curricular activities, and linking schools with the community. …

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